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Buffalo schools ‘have a plan’ if teachers strike

With a teacher contract that expired 12 years ago, and the latest unraveling of negotiations, Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash is not ruling out the possibility of a strike.

Cash said he would not assume that Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore will lead a strike, but when pressed, the superintendent said the district would be ready if a strike occurs.

“I don’t want to pre-empt that Phil is going to do that,” Cash said in a meeting Thursday with The Buffalo News Editorial Board. “What I’m not going to tolerate is Phil putting an egregious time frame on the district to settle a contract when he has not presented a true counterproposal that is responsive to all of these issues.”

When specifically asked what he would tell parents worried about a strike, Cash responded, “We have a plan.”

The comments about a possible strike come:

• Just days after Rumore walked out of the most recent round of contract negotiations.

• After Cash said the union reversed course on a proposal for retroactive pay.

• As district officials face pressure to come up with a deal before an Oct. 17 union meeting.

Rumore later Thursday evening reiterated his intention to bring a contract proposal before teachers at that meeting.

“There’s no reason we can’t have a contract to vote on that night,” he said, while declining to comment about a possible strike.

Rumore scheduled the all-teachers meeting months ago – before negotiations had even resumed – saying he expected to have a contract to present for a vote at that time. He has previously said teachers would “not be very happy” if they did not have a proposed contract to vote on and would begin exploring other options.

“He certainly has not said that they’re not going on strike,” said Edward A. Betz, general counsel for the district. “My concern is he is not trying to avert this and that he has not at all informed membership of the consequences of this.”

A strike would have serious repercussions for teachers, parents and students.

Teacher strikes are illegal under state law. In exchange for giving up the right to strike, the state’s Taylor Law mandates that existing contract terms remain in place until a new agreement can be negotiated.

If teachers do strike, participants not only lose pay for any days not at work, but are also docked an additional day’s wages.

Union leaders also could face jail time. In 2000, Rumore served eight days in jail as part of a 15-day contempt-of-court sentence for violating the no-strike law. He used his time incarcerated to tutor other inmates.

“Mr. Rumore has gone to jail before and said he liked it,” Betz said.

Given those penalties, teacher strikes are rare, but not outside the realm of possibility.

During the 2000 strike, 3,800 teachers walked out in frustration over the lack of progress in contract negotiations. The union called the one-day strike after the district presented contract proposals that included demands previously rejected by teachers.

Rumore called the strike at 7:05 a.m. Sept. 7, catching school district officials off guard and delaying the start of the school year.

Prior to that, in 1976, Buffalo teachers went on strike during the first phase of a court-ordered desegregation program. The strike was ultimately resolved when an outside arbitrator stepped in to negotiate an agreement.

Rumors of a possible strike have been floating through the district in recent years as contract talks have become more tedious.

This week, both sides have been tactically trying to get their message out to teachers and the public before the Oct. 17 meeting.

After walking out of negotiations, Rumore drummed up a crowd of hundreds of teachers – including the state teachers union president – to protest prior to Wednesday’s School Board meeting. Then, at the meeting, district administrators went public with their proposal, saying that they did not believe that Rumore had given all of the details to teachers.

Adding to the pressure is new dynamics on the Buffalo School Board, which has several new members elected with heavy support from the union.

Cash said that all nine board members agree with the most recent proposal that the district put on the table, but also acknowledged that things could change if the political climate does.

“I’ve been around,” Cash said. “It’s when things get to another level – when parents start talking, when teachers start talking, when relationships that people have – start putting pressure on. That’s when board members tend to do something else, but I don’t think they will on this issue. My sense is they understand the gravity of this.”

Cash also had a ready response when asked whether he could assure parents that there would be a teacher in their child’s classroom after the October union meeting.

“Let’s ask Phil that first,” Cash said. “You get that response from Phil, then I’ll give my response.”

email: tlankes@buffnews, jrey@buffnews.com

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